Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 614 pages. $27.00.
Ever since his extraordinary first novel, Angels, Denis Johnson has earned his fair share of comparisons to William Blake, but I think he’s closer to Dante. He writes a deeply resonant, poetic prose that never loses its cool, even when describing the worst kinds of moral or emotional torment. The people in his books are hell-bound and God-haunted, and Johnson views them with honesty and pity.
Here’s something I jotted down in the back of my old paperback of Angels: “Bill would be the bad guy in most books, and he’s not very good in this one. Good and bad do not apply. People are what they are: tired, burned-out, dependent on whatever sensation will block out the nightmare of today and tempt them with the promise of tomorrow.”
The character I was referring to is Bill Houston, who meets a woman on a bus named Jamie; they are two tragically needy, stupid and horrible people, and together they take one of the saddest trips I’ve ever encountered. In subsequent novels like Jesus' Son and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Johnson follows characters along similarly fascinating and disturbing downward spirals. He gets inside the heads of people you may not want to know, and he makes you care. These are novels which deepen the human experience.
Johnson’s latest, Tree of Smoke, is a prequel to Angels, in part, in that it follows Bill before he made that fateful bus trip, but that's only a fraction of a much broader, stranger, far more complex story. It's a Vietnam War novel about the shape-shifting nature of war: the way it defines and obscures, turns truth into lies, real into surreal and people into animals. It is complex and at times may tax a reader's ability to hold it all together, but it's also deeply artistic, brilliantly structured, and exhaustively ambitious. It's also about how hard it is to write a fresh novel about a subject that has been thoroughly ransacked; it's Johnson's entry in the Great American Novel game, and it seems bent on eating everything that came before it.
It starts on a Darwinian note, in the jungle. Bill, an 18-year-old Navy seaman stationed in the Phillipines, wanders around with a rifle, looking for wild game; lacking that, he shoots a harmless monkey, “not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog.” He rushes to the monkey, and cradles it in his arms:
With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of the eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didn’t seem to hear.
Human nature, no less than nature itself, is quick, cruel, unforgiving, and random; so it is with war, and so it will be with many casualties to come. A man can pull a trigger simply because a trigger is there to pull. It doesn’t need a reason, and survival has a lot to do with luck.
The multi-character story feeds off two related plots, which Johnson keeps at arm's length from each other. The center of the story belongs to William “Skip” Sands, a gung-ho young man who arrives in the Philippines, supposedly to work for the Del Monte Corporation, which is actually just a cover for his work with his legendary uncle, Francis X. Sands, the chief CIA liaison officer for Psychological Operations Group of the Military Assistance Command, or PsyOps, which basically means screwing with the heads of the Viet Cong.
The other, lesser plot involves Bill, who is in the Navy, and his younger stepbrother James, who sees no future from living in Arizona with his cranky Bible-quoting mother and joins the Army. James will have the typical, sometimes too typical, experiences of a grunt and will wind up in Echo Company, which serves at the behest of the Colonel.
Skip's role is to organize his uncle’s vast and rather odd set of files and to collect local folklore to be used in a campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese against Communist aggression. (“The land is their myth,” his uncle tells him. “We penetrate the land, we penetrate their national soul.”) The Colonel, an ex-military officer known far and wide for his bravery and resourcefulness as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, is the kind of old school warrior who believes any means justify his anti-Communist ends. Skip, who lost his father in World War II, is another true believer, quickly proves himself to have just the kind of big-picture morality the Colonel needs.
With Echo Company at this command, the Colonel devises an operation called Tree of Smoke, the purpose of which is to set up a double agent to release phony information to the North Vietnamese. They aren't the only ones being deceived, as part of the CIA's goal is to shape the American government, to "create fictions and serve them to our policy-makers in order to control the direction of government." Tree of Smoke comes from the Book of Joel -- a referent throughout Angels as well -- which refers to a tree of fire and smoke that both illuminates and obscures. It becomes a guiding symbol of the war itself, where deception runs so deep that it's hard to tell who is on which side, and likewise transforms people without their knowing it, disorienting their moral sense.
“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself,” says one hotshot young soldier. “Right where it turns into a dream.”
It is also a place where, to borrow Yeats’ famous line, the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. The conventionally good people, like missionaries and religious aid workers, wonder what in God’s name they are doing here, and if there’s a God. Vietnamese locals, either naive or duplicitous, try to figure out whether to put their chips on the Americans or the Communists. Others have no qualms at all about their purpose in Vietnam, either because they believe in it, like the Colonel and (despite growing reservations) Skip, or because they are somewhat indifferent, like James -- an emotionally shallow character who doesn't really feel alive unless he's either getting shot at or doing the killing, torturing or raping himself.
We briefly meet Father Carignan, the kind of guilt-wracked priest you see in a number of Graham Greene novels -- and there is a shadow of Greene on the novel -- who feels partly responsible for the death of a Seventh Day Adventist missionary, and whose wartime experiences have rocked his belief in God. The same goes for Kathy Jones, the widow of another missionary, who has a wartime affair with Skip; she can neither believe nor unbelieve, she is never quite sure if Vietnam is purgatory or hell, and she's tormented by the idea of predestination, especially in a landscape where so many seem damned from birth. One of the Colonel's plans is to pump Viet Cong tunnels with hallucinogens, and characters often feel (and sometimes literally are) in tunnels where they have lost their way.
The novel is soaked in the Bible -- Vietnam itself is like some Old Testament landscape scarred by fire and blood -- and spiritual ironies and dualities abound. On temporary leave, Bill meets a thug who spontaneously guns down someone who owes him money. "I don't forgive my debtors," he says. "I don't forgive those who have trespassed against me." The mother of Bill and James can barely control her own life, but she has "a crazy love for Jesus, who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her." Kathy quotes John Calvin as he attempts to justify why God permits evil: "Although, therefore, those things which are evil, in so far as they are evil, are not good, yet it is good that there should be evil things." A question runs through the whole story, tormenting one character after the next: am I Jesus or Judas?
At the same time, part of what makes the novel such a rich literary experience is that it both pays homage to the literature that came before it, and absorbs it, taking on its own mythic dimensions. The core story involving the Colonel’s rogue operation is pure Heart of Darkness, and it will climax with a mystical trip into the jungle, where all the novel’s themes of destiny, sacrifice and redemption will play dramatically themselves out. The loss of faith throughout the book calls to mind Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India; the Colonel himself echoes not only of Conrad’s Col. Kurtz, but also Melville’s obsessive Ahab and Fitzgerald’s self-inventing Gatsby. Skip and Kathy ask each other if they are the quiet American or the ugly one.
It isn’t always smooth sailing; the plot overwhelms you, certain battle scenes feel distended, and the tone occasionally borders on the melodramatic. Take a deep breath and push on. Between its heartbreaking opening and shattering ending, it becomes ever more powerful and strange, and the last page -- a beauty; possibly the best one Johnson has ever written -- leaves you with a question that may just bother you into reading it all over again.
This novel will kick your ass.